Small-Brained Early Humans Buried Their Dead and Used Symbols

(p. A16) Discoveries from a subterranean cave system in South Africa are prompting paleoanthropologists to rethink what makes us human. New findings reveal a small-brained human relative known as Homo naledi buried its dead and carved symbols on walls inside the system. Both these behaviors were previously associated with our species or the big-brained Neanderthals with which we interbred.

“We’re looking at cultural behavior that is very human in a species that has a brain a third the size of ours,” said John Hawks, a University of Wisconsin-Madison paleoanthropologist and co-author of the research released Monday [June 5, 2023], which will soon be published in the journal eLife as reviewed preprints. “It is going against the idea that brain size is what made us human.”

. . .

“We’ve never had a creature that manifested the complexity of us that wasn’t us,” said Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist and an explorer in residence at National Geographic who co-authored the new research. Homo naledi, he added, is “threatening to the very clearly defined narrative of the rise of human exceptionalism.”

For the full story, see:

Aylin Woodward. “Ape-Size-Brained Relative Upends Theories.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, June 6, 2023): A16.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated June 5, 2023, and has the title “New Homo Naledi Cave Discoveries Upend What We Know About Being Human.”)

The reference to the journal preprint mentioned above is:

Agustin, Fuentes, Kissel Marc, Spikins Penny, Molopyane Keneiloe, Hawks John, and R. Berger Lee. “Burials and Engravings in a Small-Brained Hominin, Homo Naledi, from the Late Pleistocene: Contexts and Evolutionary Implications.” bioRxiv (2023): 2023.06.01.543135.

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